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China’s Traditional Cultural Values

The cultural values of a country influence its national psychology and identity. Citizens’ values and public opinions are conveyed to state leaders through the media and other information channels, both directly and indirectly influencing decisions on foreign policy. The traditional cultural values that influence the psyche of the Chinese people are harmony, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, honesty, loyalty, and filial piety.

Of these, the core value is harmony. Harmony means “proper and balanced coordination between things” and encompasses rationale, propriety, and compatibility. Rationale refers to acting according to objective laws and truths. Propriety indicates suitability and appropriateness. The value of harmony advocates “harmony but not uniformity.” Properly coordinating different things by bringing them together in the appropriate manner allows them to develop from an uncoordinated state to one of coordination; from asymmetry to symmetry; and from imbalance to balance. Modern Chinese society tries to maintain harmony between humankind and nature; between people and society; between members of different communities; and between mind and body.

Benevolence, the core value of Confucianism, extends from the importance of familial ties and blood connections and is held in high esteem by the Chinese. “A peaceful family will prosper (jiahe wanshi xing, 家和万事兴)” is a famous and widely embraced saying. This benevolence, although based in familial ties, extends to friendships and social relationships, producing a full set of values that include justice, courtesy, wisdom, honesty, loyalty, self-discipline, and commitment.

Righteousness refers to justice and correctness. As Confucius said, “the gentleman understands what is moral; the small man understands what is profitable (junzi yu yu yi, xiaoren yu yu li, 君子喻于义,小人喻于利).” There are not only individual benefits but also collective and social benefits. All people should seek what benefits both the individual and the society. As two Chinese sayings put it, “Everybody is responsible for the rise or fall of the country (tianxia xingwang, pifu youze, 天下兴亡,匹夫有责)” and “Be the first to show concern and the last to enjoy yourself (xian tianxia zhi you er you, hou tianxia zhi le er le, 先天下之忧而忧,后天下之乐而乐).” If the country suffers foreign invasions and perils, the people should “expel the foreign invaders [and] resuscitate the Chinese nation (quchu dalu, huifu zhonghua, 驱除鞑虏,恢复中华),” brandishing their weapons and struggling for the glory of the country.

Courtesy stresses modesty and prudence. It is about respecting laws and preventing misconduct. Traditional Chinese culture respects the importance of rites and has special rites for various occasions, such as the emperor’s sacrifice to heaven, the common people’s sacrifice to ancestors, weddings, funerals, and courteous exchanges. As the saying goes, “It is impolite not to return what one receives (lai er buwang fei li ye, 来而不往非礼也).” Confucius particularly stressed courtesy in daily life.

Wisdom requires that one distinguish right from wrong, place capable people in suitable positions, know oneself, and be resourceful. Confucius said, “Benevolence means to love and wisdom means to understand others renzhe airen, zhizhe zhiren, 仁者爱人,智者知人).” One must have a loving heart to love others, and one must have wisdom to understand others. People should have not only a loving heart but also wisdom to distinguish good from evil and right from wrong. They should have the wisdom and resourcefulness to control evil and promote good.

A number of prominent figures who loved and understood others have carved their names into Chinese history, such as Wei Qing (卫青), the Han dynasty general during the reign of Emperor Wudi; Wei Zheng (魏征), the Tang dynasty prime minister during the reign of Emperor Taizong; Hai Rui (海瑞), an honest and upright Ming dynasty official; Qi Jiguang (戚继光), a famous Ming dynasty general who fought Japanese pirates; and two upright Northern Song dynasty officials, Kou Zhun (寇准) and Bao Zheng (包拯).

Honesty refers to trustworthiness, integrity, and credibility. “People should obtain their fortunes reasonably and properly through their labor,” said Confucius, “and not through fraudulence and cheating.” He emphasized honesty in daily behavior. Honesty is a moral virtue greatly valued by the Chinese. Many Confucian businessmen insisted on the principle of honesty in running enterprises in the past and established time-honored brands.

Loyalty stresses service to the motherland. It is an emotion and a value that evolves from blood ties and means that in cases of foreign invasion citizens should exert all efforts to protect their country as they would protect their own homes. Loyalty also means faithfulness to family and friends.

Filial piety is another important value in Confucianism. According to Confucius, “Respecting and supporting the family’s senior members and handling their funeral affairs (zunlao, jinglao, yanglao, songlao, 尊老、敬老、养老、送老)” are duties of younger generations, and “caring for the old and nurturing the young (lao you duo yang, shao you suo yi, 老有所养,少有所依)” are fundamental family virtues.

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